Israeli Holocaust survivors are pleading with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to cancel his plan to forcefully expel tens of thousands of African migrants, citing their own experiences as outcasts.
“We, who know precisely what it’s like to be refugees, to be homeless and bereft of a state that preserves and protects us from violence and suffering, cannot comprehend how a Jewish government can expel refugees and asylum seekers to a journey of suffering, torment and death,” the 36 signatories wrote in an open letter published in English by Haaretz newspaper on Friday.
The appeal came on the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
On January 3, Netanyahu announced implementation of a plan to deport about 38,000 migrants who entered Israel illegally, mainly Eritreans and Sudanese, and gave them until the end of March to leave voluntarily or face jail and eventual expulsion by force.
He defended his decision at the weekly cabinet meeting last Sunday, denying that the potential deportees were refugees.
“We are acting against illegal migrants who come here not as refugees but for work needs,” he said. “Israel will continue to offer asylum for genuine refugees and will remove illegal migrants from its midst.”
He did not say to which country they would be sent but Israel tacitly recognises it is too dangerous to return the Sudanese and Eritreans home.
Aid workers and media have named Uganda and Rwanda. Uganda has publicly denied being a destination.
The website of the Aid Organisation for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel (ASSAF) says that of 10,000 asylum requests from Eritreans in Israel, only seven have been granted, while one Sudanese has received asylum.
It does not state the number of Sudanese applicants, but government figures from October 2016 list 8,066 Sudan nationals among the migrants.
A 2016 UN commission of inquiry into Eritrea’s regime found “widespread and systematic” crimes against humanity and said an estimated 5,000 people flee the country each month.
The International Criminal Court has indicted Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide linked to his regime’s counter-insurgency tactics in the 14-year-old Darfur conflict.
ASSAF says that there are “thousands” from the Darfur region of western Sudan among those seeking asylum in Israel whose applications have yet to receive an answer.